Ketchup Conundrum

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A couple of weeks after opening our doors, a Spokesman-Review blogger wrote about an enjoyable breakfast he had at the restaurant. The praise was diminished somewhat by a lengthy rant about the coffee “not tasting like coffee”. The morning of their visit some Ethiopian Sidamo was served instead of our usual darker than dark morning blend. I know better than to serve a single origin coffee to breakfast diners. This coffee was meant to be brewed for after dinner when a lighter, sweeter flavor profile would be well matched to dessert. I could argue that the Sidamo is a “better” coffee, but it so poorly matched the preconceived notion of what the customer had in mind that it would be pointless. I am not one of those “customer is always right” people, but it is hard to tell someone they are wrong about what they think tastes good.

Which brings us to the question,

“Can I get some Ketchup?’

I don’t know why I have let these words haunt me. There wasn’t a moment when I made the decision not to have ketchup. It just never occurred to me that I needed to buy some ketchup. Of course, we are one of those restaurants that should be making our own ketchup right? It is all the rage. The Inlander even wrote an article about the trend. At the time I thought it seemed strange that it was worthy of the limited column inches devoted to food culture in Spokane by our local press. Ketchup is not interesting or even useful in most restaurants. The Seinfeld episode that famously discussed ketchup’s fall from the top of the condiment food chain was over 20 years ago. Ketchup is by its scientific nature a flavor masking agent not a flavor enhancing product (refer to food scientist Harold McGee for more on that subject).

Even if I put all of this aside, I still seem to be stymied by this most American of sauces. The reason is that it poses one of the greatest challenges possible in cooking: fulfill a request that both satisfies the strong expectations of the audience while representing your personal beliefs about what the item should taste like. I do not want to make a sauce that tastes like Heinz or Hunt’s but the person requesting the product to smother their breakfast potatoes with absolutely does. I could make something with more earthiness and spiciness but that isn’t what they want. There may be another group that may be excited by this new incarnation of Ketchup but they are not the person who is requesting it in the first place. They are the kind of person who is not bothered by the romesco or Sriracha offerings our staff is trained to counter with. The person who asks for ketchup wants ketchup, not sweet and sour tomato condiment punctuated with Nam Pla, smoked sea salt and hemp seed.

As ridiculous as it sounds to actually say, I find myself getting philosophical about this whole saga.
The ketchup conundrum plays itself out in my mind like a Darren Aranofsky film. It is an over-saturated, over-blown, quizzical drama that somehow manages to torture the audience even more than the central character. Everyday, I learn better how to handle being constantly judged and the very real personal and financial repercussions of those judgements. Somewhere in the inner dialogue of the ketchup debate I hope to find some of the answers of how to move forward through the paranoia and doubt in a way that makes sense to me. Until then you should try the romesco; it really is good with the breakfast potatoes.